- Published: Monday, 11 May 2009 03:01
08 May 2009
Gurkhas in the British Army are training to return to Afghanistan. I’ve been invited to train alongside them. There is a sense of realism in the unit, probably because, as the British commander told me, about a third of the soldiers are combat veterans. During these war games, the enemy (also British soldiers) is given free reign. They can attack anyway they wish – without breaking the law, of course. They are not permitted to, say, steal a helicopter to attack. Just about everything else is game. If the British enemy wages a successful attack against the British defenders, they get a day off from training and lots of bragging rights. The commander told me that one time, they put the soldiers into the jungle and gave them three days to “kill” as many enemy as possible. The winner would get time off. Apparently it was three days of cat-like “combat,” with soldiers tracking and counter-tracking, ambushes and so on and so forth. One group ran out of ammo so they tried a deception by slinging their weapons over their shoulders. They got non-tactical and crashed through the jungle toward the helicopter landing site. Another group had sneaked up to the site and were defending it. The plan was to act like the exercise was over, and get close to the defending soldiers, then beat them up or whatever, and take their weapons. The Brits play rough. But the group with ammo (blanks) didn’t fall for it, and shot them.
The helicopter lifted off at about 0737hrs, Borneo time. Our “mission” would begin deep in the jungle where, yesterday, a helicopter pilot had spotted several men crossing a clearing on a ridge that marks the border between the countries of Malaysia and Brunei. When the men spotted the helicopter they disappeared into the jungle. Some miles away, an ambush had occurred leaving one dead and several wounded, and so the commander decided to check out the pilot’s hunch that these men might have been involved. A tracking team was dispatched.
This nest was about four feet off the ground, deep in a jungle on the Brunei-Malaysia border. It appeared to be made from spiderweb and straw. I came across it yesterday and have no idea what species of bird made it. I photographed the nest and left immediately.
05 May 2009
In order to “burst” back the salient points of this combat tracking course, I must return each day, worn out from training, and stream back the information without editing. I’ve taken many photos but there is no time to upload images while still cleaning gear each day, and hoping to get a few winks before returning to the course. My hope is that the reader will forgive any sloppiness in exchange for more raw information.
The final three days of testing involve three separate tracks, and since we are divided into three groups, the groups simply alternate scenarios. I am actually alternating groups and scenarios, so that I go with all three groups, and do all three test scenarios.
A Quick Email
04 May 2009
Brunei, Borneo Island
Testing for the combat tracking course began today. Just around sunrise, the students were given a mission. Their combat gear was ready, and helicopter transport was only about one minute’s walk away.
Before I boarded the helicopter, Major Dean Williams handed me a printout of a story describing how we just lost more U.S. soldiers in Mosul. It was bad news to start the day, and there were other reports about our losses in Afghanistan. Reports from the wars are nearly always so vague as to border on meaningless, other than a few sad statements.
02 May 2009
A quick email Borneo Island:
Jungles are mysterious places. There was a small, round stone on the ground. The coarse grey orb was larger than a marble but smaller than a golf ball. Two strips of tape were fastened around it. One strip was fastened around the stone’s “equator,” and the other was fastened “pole to pole.” A small tail of monofilament line was taped to the stone. Five yards away was a skinny tree, maybe thirty or forty feet tall. A strong cord was looped over the top branch, and the two ends of the cord were tied to some wood down by my feet. Up in the branch where the cord looped over hung a small sack which looked like a tea bag. “What in the world is that?” I asked.
01 May 2009
Day thirteen of tracking was a live fire exercise with assault rifles. All seventeen students have repeatedly demonstrated that they can track other men through miles of varying sorts of terrain, including heavy jungle, and a nearby town. During the last several days, no group of students have lost the quarry. Sometimes the students track sign for hundreds of meters, or even a couple of miles, before seeing an obvious footprint. In a mere dozen days, tracking skills have increased dramatically.
And so today, a new branch of tracking knowledge was being grafted onto the trunk of combat skills the soldiers already possess. Most of the students have been in firefights and other dramas – all are highly trained – which is helping the grafting process to go easily.
Excellent American soldiers visit the folks who keep the Strykers coming. And look at that! Captain Brad Krauss and Devon Hoch on the ends. I knew them from the fighting in Iraq and can verify that they saw a lot of combat, and their lives were saved by their Stryker on numerous occasions, such as the time that Brad Krauss got blown out of the vehicle. That’s why I called him “Superman.”
And a thank you from this writer to the civilians who keep those Strykers coming. Strykers are incredible vehicles, and the civilian maintenance crews that I’ve seen in Qatar and Iraq have been outstanding and highly dedicated.
30 April 2009
Day twelve on the tracking course was a smoker. My fingers are tired from the jungle and so this email will be short.
It all started with classes this morning, then we headed into the jungle for a bit of tracking fun. The school is enjoyable because the instructors are enthusiastic and equally competent. All the students see it's value as it applies to their previous combat experience. I believe that only two of the fifteen British students are not combat veterans.
29 April 2009
A quick email from Borneo:
The fact that the United States Army has not created a large tracker-training program is a stunning failure in our combat preparations. There is no doubt in my mind that some of the Americans who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan would be here today if all of our soldiers conducted even ten days of serious tracking training. Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that more enemy would have been hunted down.
Day eleven of training was more interesting than day ten. The morning started with classes on urban tracking. Some of the students, including me, were skeptical that we could track someone who was walking down roads, sidewalks, parking lots and so on. Urban tracking sounds like dog-work, and there are four tracking dogs here. Megan is a ten year-old black lab who has gone out with us on numerous occasions, including early this evening for night tracking. The classes with Megan are designed to familiarize us with dog capabilities and limitations. She tracks like a rocket. Her handler, Sgt Matt Ball, was bragging about her one day, saying she got a medal for catching a murderer. Even Megan is a veteran. But we are learning to visually track and so it wouldn’t do anyone any good to put Megan on point for us.
28 April 2009
A quick email from Borneo Island:
Day nine of the tracking course was the most interesting so far. We started with classroom work then headed to the field. We spent all day in an area that closely resembles many parts of Afghanistan. It was plenty hot, too.
Unfortunately, I cannot write much detail about today’s course due to the sensitivity of the subject. The little bit that can be said is that we were training to address the IED threat.
In broad strokes, today’s training involved a team who put out a “mechanical ambush” very similar to those we see in the war. I went out with a team of four British soldiers who set up the ambush. All are Afghanistan veterans. The only difference between today’s ambush and what I have seen in the war is that the British are far more proficient than the enemy, and so the ambush was much better constructed than most of the real ones I have been through. For instance, the British soldiers used better deceptions than the enemy normally uses, and so in that regard today’s course was actually, I believe, more difficult than what the soldiers will face when they return to the battlefield. Otherwise, everything was dead on.
The ambush was set and a tracking team moved in to try to detect it. And so, I saw the ambush being put in, and then tagged along with the soldiers who were trying to detect it without getting flattened in the process.
27 April 2009
Now is a moment when we need the scientists on the frontlines:
27 April 2009
We just finished day eight of tracking school. Part of the day was spent in the hot jungle, but there is also scattered terrain here that resembles Afghanistan. Needless to say, the British Army probably has found every speck that resembles Afghanistan because it’s good for training. So we spend a good amount of time on sand and rock.
The students’ ability to track has improved dramatically in just eight days. Of the seventeen remaining students (four Dutch were jerked out by their government), none are struggling. This supports claims by the instructors that just about anyone with good eyesight can learn to track.
26 April 2009
We just finished day seven of a twenty-one day tracking course. The instruction started with a little classroom work on surveillance and deception tracking. All of the instructors and nearly all of the seventeen students are combat veterans. This is helping the instruction go very well. The students who are combat veterans are especially keen on becoming trackers; for them it’s a no-brainer that every infantry soldier should have a level of tracking proficiency. An instructor pointed out this morning that all those UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are nice, but how often do you really get those? Not to mention that even the best UAVs can’t see most tracks/sign. Since nearly everyone here has fought in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, everybody knows that the reality of UAVs is that, although they are incredible assets, UAVs have severe limitations. And usually they are not around. High-tech is not a replacement for basic soldiering skills, especially when the high-tech isn’t around much of the time.
25 April 2009
Brunei, Borneo Island
This quick email from Borneo is an update about the combat tracking course conducted by the British military.
Tracking is a lost art in the British and U.S. militaries. Even among the most highly trained forces, you’ll seldom come across anyone who can honestly track a man or interpret signs. Many times in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve seen combat forces come up on signs of the enemy – and our folks do set to work analyzing ever smidgen they can find – but only in a single case did I see soldiers who started tracking on a very subtle trail that was less than obvious. Not surprisingly, those soldiers were “good old boys” from the 278th Tennessee National Guard. Where those soldiers learned tracking I do not know. Presumably they got it from growing up in the boondocks, and they probably got it from their granddaddies. We didn’t get any enemies that day, but the 278th soldiers definitely were able get on what I thought was the right trail, and they tracked quite a distance (after a bomb exploded). They weren’t playing around. More recently, I was with some American soldiers in Afghanistan and there was a very minor shootout wherein nobody got hurt. At least two Taliban were seen going over a hill after the bullets were swapped. Our boys closed the gap as fast as they could and tried to get them, but we never picked up their trail and the enemy escaped. I believe that the British and Gurkha trackers I am seeing in this school in Borneo might well have picked up that trail, and nailed the Taliban that day.
25 April 2009
The plan was to be back in Afghanistan by now. Yet there are issues beyond my control that have kept me in a holding pattern. And so I came down to Borneo to keep reading up on Afghanistan while practicing photography.
Borneo, which straddles the equator, is home to incredible amounts of wildlife. I greatly enjoy bird photography which – believe it or not – I find is technically far more difficult than combat photography. Like writing, photography is not a skill that can be put in the closet and pulled out when needed. You’ve got to practice. This is especially true for combat because the photographer must think fast while bullets are snapping around, and so the camera work needs to be instinctive. Writing about combat is actually very easy. On the subject of writing, this message is just a quick email that I’ve sent to my webmaster to publish for you. The only editing it will get is a spell check, so I ask forgiveness.
24 April 2009
The British Army runs various jungle training courses in the friendly country of Brunei, on Borneo Island. I am with a British Army Gurkha battalion and am going through 21 days of combat tracking training at one of the best tracking schools in the world. Most of the students and all of the instructors are combat veterans. Very good group to be with. There are Dutch, British and Gurkha students. This course is about combat, so it’s doggone clear that the Dutch are serious about fighting in Afghanistan. Nobody would need this course unless they were planning on tracking down bad guys. (Part of the training deals with preparation for Afghanistan.) Obviously the Brits/Gurkhas are serious about Afghanistan, so no more needs to be said on that.
We are very busy with the tracking training, so I've got just short periods at a time to write. It's refreshingly hot and humid in Borneo. Sweat is the scent of the day. Last couple of days was all jungle time and had one good overnight in the jungle so far. The jungle is very nice here, not like some jungles I’ve seen. Only a few mosquitoes, for instance, but some other jungles are like mosquito farms.
Brunei, Borneo Island
Monday morning I plan to visit some natives in a jungle in Borneo. They still hunt using blowguns and poison darts, I’m told. And their ancestors were headhunters. The Iban are said to be very friendly these days, but make no mistake: Borneo is wild country.